Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
One of our universe’s biggest mysteries is how it came to be. Mythology, religion, and science have all tried to explain this phenomenon in their own ways. Among the most famous theories are the cosmogony of Heliopolis, Gaia emerging from Chaos, Adam and Eve’s genesis, the Big Bang theory, and Pangu’s separation of Heaven and Earth. If Pangu’s well-known tale explains the creation of the world in Chinese culture, then another figure called Nüwa is responsible for human life. In this instalment of our Chinese Mythology 101 series, we will explore the myth, the stories, and the worship culture surrounding Nüwa.
As the first mother and procreator of humankind, Nüwa (女媧; neoi5 wo1) is a unique figure in Chinese culture. Her name’s etymology is a testimony to that, with “nu” meaning “woman,” but the “wa” denomination being hers and hers alone. Sometimes called Nu Gua, she also goes by the title Wahuang (瓦黃; ngaa5 wong4; “Empress Wa”), supporting the myth that she was possibly one of the original Three Sovereigns of China.
Although gods supposedly created humans in their own image, our bodies would have looked slightly different if Nüwa had created us in hers. She is depicted with the face of a woman and the body of a snake or fish. Whether she is seen as a snake goddess or the first mermaid, Nüwa is powerful and wise, with most records stating that she saved humanity.
After the giant Pangu separated Heaven and Earth, his body parts created the elements, the pillars that held the sky in place, and powerful energies that became gods themselves. Among them was a fox fairy woman called Huaxu who fell pregnant after stepping in another god’s footprint and gave birth to Nüwa and Fuxi. The brother and sister later married and—in some retellings—gave birth to the first humans, although most versions of Nüwa’s myth are more of a one-woman-show.
The most common tale is that Nüwa sculpted human beings from clay. As she was feeling lonely while walking around the newly created Earth, after gazing at her reflection in a river, she had an epiphany. She was going to build herself companions out of the soft yellow clay! It is safe to say that her creations exceeded expectations when they started dancing before her eyes. Those happy clay figures were the first human beings.
Feeling gleeful, the goddess made as many clay people as possible, only stopping when her hands hurt. Even then, too tired to form delicately sculpted figures, she did not want to stop. Grabbing a nearby rope, she dragged it through the mud and proceeded to spin the rope above her head. The misshapen splashes of mud that fell created more humans, although not as detailed. Centuries later, this story is still told to explain how Chinese nobility came to be. The families close to the emperor were said to descend from the “made-by-Nüwa-herself” clay figures, whereas peasants were all children from the rope’s random designs.
Nüwa, like many mothers, dictated how her children should marry. Since she gave them the ability to reproduce so they will never feel alone like her, she also felt she had to put down certain ground rules, and became the goddess of marriage and fertility.
In some versions, her wedding to her brother Fuxi establishes the norm for all future marriages. The twins wanted to marry but felt some shame; they felt they had to ask for permission before sealing the deal. Agreeing to wait for a sign from the gods, they travelled to the divine Kunlun Shan, its peak being the point closest to heaven. They each started a fire, asking the gods to guide the smoke. If the smoke blew in different directions, then it meant they would not marry; if they merged, then their union was blessed. The smoke trails started spinning together, and wedding planning began.
Happy to be blessed by the gods but still ashamed of marrying her twin, Nüwa supposedly hid her face with a fan during the wedding ceremony, a gesture that is now part of Chinese wedding tradition. She is also the inventor—or first player—of the shenghuang (勝煌; sing3 wong4) flute, still played in traditional Chinese marriage ceremonies. Finally, the tale of Nüwa and Fuxi’s wedding also passed down the idea that unions should be arranged by gods, and not by personal preference.
Theirs is considered the first wedding of all humanity. For some scholars, it represents the union of yin and yang energies coming together and generating life on Earth. They were twins, born at the same time, and the parents of mankind, meaning they are easily associated with yin and yang attributes: Nüwa as the gentle female (yin) and Fuxi is a fierce male (yang). Yin and yang references are also linked to the clay-figure creation, with the belief that Nüwa injected the two energies in humans, condemning men and women to aggressive and submissive behaviours.
Besides creating humans, Nüwa also sincerely cared for them. In multiple versions of her story, she saved humanity by mending a hole in the sky.
Up in Heaven, a temperamental water deity called Gong Gong and the fire god Zhurong fought so hard that one of the Pillars of Heaven, Mount Buzhou, was destructed as a result. The edges of Earth crumbled, and fires, floods, and mythological beast inundated our world. Seeing her children attacked and helpless, Nüwa intervened. First of all, she had to staunch the flow from the sky. By melting five stones together, she patched the hole. Those five stones are all of a different colour (red, yellow, green, black, and white) and some say they represent the elements of earth, water, fire, wood, and metal.
Following her crafty patchwork, she had to fix the broken Pillars of Heaven. To do so, she replaced them with the legs of a tortoise, sometimes by slicing them herself, other times by negotiating with a compassionate turtle called Ao who gave her limbs away willingly. The new pillars were solid enough to hold up the sky, but the imperfect solution forever tilted Earth, explaining why all rivers in China flow in a southeasterly direction.
Once she mended the foundations of the universe, the brave and maternal Nüwa defeated the monsters roaming Earth, tamed the fires, and used the ashes to stop the floods that almost drowned her humans. The goddess’s efforts were great, and this story sometimes ends with Nüwa dying of exhaustion, or having to sacrifice herself in order to fill in the holes in the sky. Some happier endings see her simply travelling to Heaven and watching over her humans from there.
In a lesser-known event retold in the sixteenth-century novel Investiture of the Gods, Nüwa donates the five elemental stones to the king of the Shang dynasty. Wishing to thank her, King Zhou visits Nüwa. Dumbfounded by her beauty, the king dedicates an erotic poem to her, written on the walls of her temple. Offended and enraged, the goddess of creation had revenge on her mind. Unable to change fate and kill the king before his time, she sends three of her mythical beasts to torment him and damage his reputation.
It is said that towards the end of his reign, King Zhou started drinking, organised orgies, and over-taxed his people to finance his lavish lifestyle. Investiture of the Gods tells us this all started after Nüwa sent three beautiful women to seduce and corrupt him. Nüwa might not have been able to kill King Zhou for his grave offense, but his immoral behaviour led his army to revolt against him, putting an end to the Shang dynasty.
For her hard work creating and then saving all of humanity, Nüwa deserves recognition. Many temples are dedicated to her and her brother, but the biggest temple to honour Nüwa is the Wahuanggong (娲皇宫; wo1 wong4 gung1; Empress Wa Palace) in the northeastern province of Heibei in Mainland China. Although they are now lost to time, the first shrines were built on these grounds around 200 AD. To this day, the temple nestled in the mountains is thought of as the place of Nüwa’s creation—as the birthplace of humankind, so to speak. Many believers conduct pilgrimages to Wahuanggong during Ching Ming Festival (清明節; cing1 ming4 zit3; Tomb Sweeping Day) where they can pay their respects to a life-like statue of Nüwa wearing traditional clothing.
A 40-feet-tall white statue of Nüwa in the Shekou province of Shenzhen shows the goddess as a mermaid with a fish tail but human face and torso. It is one of the largest mermaid statues in the world. Holding her hands up, Nüwa is depicted as the saviour mending a hole in the sky. Whereas people worship her for her role in marital and fertility affairs, the story of her creating and saving humankind is the one that is most retold in pop culture. She has been made a character in operas, animes, movies, and children’s books, such as Penguin’s Chinese Folktales Picture Book Series, and video games, such as Arcane Legions and Smite.
Whether you celebrate Nüwa on Renri (人日; jan4 jat6; “people’s day”) or chose her as your fighter on gaming night, the goddess is doubtless a power figure within the Chinese pantheon.